February 07, 2018
The recent protests in Iran, which started on December 28, 2017 from Mashhad, the holy and second largest city of Iran, spread rapidly across the country for more than a week, and caused shockwaves inside, and outside, Iran. Having reached the month mark of the protests, experts on Iran affairs have done several analyses on this unexpected event from different perspectives but an important viewpoint is missing. This unspoken perspective is that of so-called Iranian champagne socialists, or members of the elite who champion left wing ideology.
At the heart of the recent protests were young and low income individuals rising up against economic hardship, corruption, discrimination and inequality. Their involvement set the protests apart from previous clashes. The 2009 post-election protests referred to as the “Green Movement” were mainly driven by the middle class who were not keen on supporting the working classes. The causes of the recent protests therefore make the uprising unique, but the absence of a new generation of left-wing Iranians who are influential opinion makers is equally important.
Historically, the left has always been the voice of the working class and it was they who led strikes, rallies and other types of protests. However, the majority of Iranian leftists, particularly the new generation who typically live in large cities and study abroad, appear to have more in common with regime affiliated moderate groups, or reformists, than their campaigning predecessors.
Rather than joining the protesters this time, this demographic actively tried to convince protesters to stay calm and find peaceful ways to raise their concerns. Even radical leftists, who represent all that remains of the 1970s socialist movement in Iran, appear to have virtually no influence on the next generation of socialists in Iran. They were slow to respond to the clashes, too: a statement about the protests was released almost three weeks after they had started.
The new generation of left wing Iranians hold the revolutionary socialists of 1960’s and 1970’s up as their heroes. However, unlike their predecessors, they have elected to avoid radical action, even in support of the poorest in society.
This new approach can be seen in Iran’s current influencers, like Yousef Abazari, a Sociology professor at Tehran University, who is very popular amongst Iran’s new generation of socialists. Reacting to the recent demonstrations, he chose to humiliate the protesters and referred to them “as kids who know nothing about contemporary history”.
Abazari’s plain speaking and often controversial viewpoints are admired by his numerous fans, which include thoughts ranging from the “Pahlavi government being a bloodthirsty and murderous regime,” to criticisms of the Islamic Republic for not letting the Iranian youth know about their history. Abazari’s comments about the Pahlavi government were a response to protesters chanting in favour of the Pahlavi family during the demonstrations.
Ironically, none of Abazari’s criticisms addressed the current regime’s failings, which were at the heart of the protests. Abazari then, is typical of the new Iranian Left: supportive of anti-establishment actions, like those which led to the Revolution in 1979 but unwilling, or unable, to take a similar approach against the Islamic Republic.
Ali Alizadeh is another such influencer, though based in London, and refers to himself as a ‘Philosophy Tutor’ on his twitter account. He has also been introduced on BBC and VOA Persian with a range of titles including political activist, political analyst, and philosophy researcher. Alizadeh’s contributions to BBC Persian have made him famous, and revered amongst the younger generation in Iran. Alizadeh has also commented on the recent protests, suggesting they were a threat to Iran’s national security, a discourse which is in harmony with what intelligence services in Iran claim. In what appears to be a trait amongst Iranian influencers today, Alizadeh uses language that is controversial and crude. He has called an American Republican senator “filthy,” and a senior member of The “Foundation for Defense of Democracies” a “savage”, and although he appears to be concerned on the surface with security issues, he never comments on those fighting against the Iranian regime’s injustices.
It is hard to determine whether this kind of behaviour is a shift in tactics, strategy or belief. What is clear though, is that today’s left in Iran, is in part made up of a generation of young socialists who seem to be searching for another way.